Celebrating With Our Priests

This “new kid” from the Midwest is still traveling around his new home here in New York, learning a lot and taking it all in, eyes wide open and mouth often whistling in awe.

The week before last, I had a delightful evening out and took in a Broadway production, “Irena’s Vow.” When it was over, I told the cast that “this was one of the best sermons I’ve heard in a long time.”

If you’ve yet to see it, please, don’t miss it. I cried, laughed, cheered and prayed. Irena was a young, faithful Catholic Polish woman, raped by Soviet forces, then pressed into service as a housekeeper to a high Nazi official. There, she sheltered Jewish neighbors who were to be shipped to the dreaded death camps. The drama of Irena’s courage, realism, faith, hope and prayer is dazzling.

I won’t spill any more of the plot which, by the way, is a true story so that you can enjoy it as much as I did. Consider it a “mini-retreat,” and be prepared to be inspired.

Since I last wrote you in this column, I also had the joy of visiting St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. You all just concluded last year a splendid celebration of the bicentennial of the establishment of the Diocese of New York in 1808. The following year, the cornerstone was put in place for our cathedral. This venerable parish, under the splendid shepherding of the pastor, Msgr. Don Sakano, began a multiyear jubilee celebration, and I was honored to initiate the anniversary with Mass. I also relished a tour of the parish’s structures and programs, and then cheered a parade in front of the Church.

Make no mistake: our “old cathedral” is far from a museum. It is a vibrant parish family, as alive today as it was two centuries ago.

As I prayed at the tombs of three of my predecessors, I could only praise God for His lavish graces upon this historic archdiocese.

Last weekend, of course, we celebrated the beautiful feast of Corpus Christi. After the 5:30 p.m. Saturday vigil Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the “new” one, this time!), the congregation joined me in a procession with the Blessed Sacrament all around the streets bordering the cathedral. I so appreciated the presence of the Sisters of Life, the Knights of Columbus, seminarians from the Legionaries of Christ and hundreds of our faithful.

Carrying the Holy Eucharist on Fifth Avenue, 51st Street, Madison Avenue and 50th Street, and stopping at three outside altars for benediction, reminded me of the imperative given us at every Mass: to go out and bring Jesus to the world through evangelization and loving service.

And it prompted me to recall my visit the day before to the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center. Here I found the loving service that the Eucharist inspires to be dramatically evident. HIV-AIDS patients, children with grave disabilities, those learning to live with Huntington’s disease, poor people needing dialysis to stay alive and those with simply nowhere else to go all find here a warm, welcome embrace and expert medical care, all in the Holy Name of Jesus, the Divine Physician, all in honor of the Servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke, who taught us all so much, particularly about the intrinsic value of human life, no matter how fragile, by how he himself bore the cross of cancer.

Yes, Jesus Christ is really and truly present in the Most Holy Eucharist, as we receive Him worthily in Holy Communion, and adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament. That faith helps us recognize His presence as well in wonderful people like those I visited at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center.

Finally, everybody, can I let you know of my excitement about the Year of Priests, called for by Pope Benedict XVI, to begin tomorrow, June 19, the 150th anniversary of the passing of the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney, revered as the “Curé (pastor) of Ars.”

In my first two months with you, I have begun to know the priests of this historic archdiocese, and I already love them very much.

Yes, their numbers are not enough, and their average age goes up; yes, they have to administer huge plants and tight budgets without letting those headaches distract them from their major duty of preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and helping Jesus save souls; yes, they hold their breath each morning as they open the paper, wondering if yet another “scandal” by a brother-priest will earn headlines, and wince as they watch late-night TV and hear the comedians snicker at the vocation they cherish; yes, they are blasted by one extreme for being “modernists,” and by the other fringe for being medieval, patriarchal autocrats.

Yet, they keep at it, faithful, generous, zealous, 92 percent of them so the sociologists tell us happy, loving their vocation, eager to persevere, never regretting their choice. I see them ministering to prisoners, hearing confessions in midtown Manhattan, welcoming people to Mass, taking their sermons seriously, consoling the sorrowing at funeral parlors, learning the languages of new immigrants the better to serve them, teaching in our schools and in our hospitals.

I love them; I thank them; and I invite all of you to pray with and for them during this Year of Priests.

During my visit to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral that I described earlier, I also knelt in prayer before the tomb of the first two priests ordained for this diocese. Their heirs would make them very proud.

It opens tomorrow providentially, the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our priests lead us to and open up for us the graces, mercy and tenderness of a God with a heart!